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Brigadier Gen. Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a human of Afro-Cuban descent, poses for a portrait in his spacesuit. He to be the first Black and Latin human being to reach space, in September 1980. Roscosmos via Tamayo Méndez, who was 38 year old at the time of his launch, was born in Guantanamo, Cuba, top top January 29, 1942. (He"s 78 years old today.)

His upbringing was anything but easy. Born into a poor family on Guantánamo in ~ the eastern guideline of Cuba, his parents died from a "serious illness" when he was just a couple of months old, orphaning him,according come the book "Interkosmos: The east Bloc"s Early space Program" by Colin Burgess and also Bert Vis.

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"I to be born in a bad negro family, and although ns dreamed of paris from childhood, the was utterly unthinkable," Tamayo Méndez stated in the book. "I had to start occupational early, together a street shoe-shine young — a bad man"s profession — or selling vegetables."

He also delivered milk, labored in a furniture factory, and also became an apprentice carpenter in ~ 13 year old.

Tamayo Méndez joined the Cuban revolution of the 1950s, and also he later attended the association of Young Rebels about 1960, according to

That led him to study as one aviation technician in Cuba and become a pilot after relocating to the Soviet Union to proceed his studies, wherein he learned to fly a MiG-15 fighter jet. If training, he was motivated by the first-ever human being spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

According come the book, Tamayo Méndez later flew reconnaissance missions throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis and continued to fly together he ascended the military ranks over the years. This positioned him as a cosmonaut candidate once the Soviet Union launched the Intercosmos routine to help its allies reach space.

Tamayo Méndez was selected for the regimen in 1978 and also spent approximately 1,500 hrs training over an ext than two years v Romanenko, his crewmate, before their September 1980 launch. The two males docked through the usual Salyut-6 an are station a couple days later, continued to be aboard for about five days, and then went back home.

While in space, Tamayo Méndez aided perform much more than 2 dozen experiments. For four hours each day ~ above Salyut-6, he placed on special shoes designed to put push on foot arcs in hopes of lessening the nauseating and also disorienting results of space adaptation syndrome, or "space sickness," i m sorry affects about half of human being who fly to space. (Astronauts and cosmonauts now use anti-motion sickness drugs and time come treat the condition.)

Tamayo Méndez likewise helped with experiments entailing a brain-stimulating helmet, as well as those designed come measure anxiety levels, blood circulation, immune device cell health, and also cellular of department yeast.

"It is a symbol that a man from such humble origin has attained such extraordinary success"


native left: Cosmonauts Valery Ryumin, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, Yuri Romanenko, and Leonid Popov float within the Salyut 6 room station in September 1980. Roscosmos

During the selection process for the mission, called Soyuz-38, Tamayo Méndez beat out a Romanian candidate for the prime crew.

Burgess and also Vis created in their publication that it"s "believed that Fidel Castro wanted Mendez to paris the Soviet-Cuban mission and also used his considerable influence to ensure the this to be the outcome."

After his safe go back to Earth, Tamayo Méndez got hero"s medals from both Cuba and also the USSR. Castro gave a decided in October 1980 the highlighted the cosmonaut"s status as a Black and Latin man.

"It is a symbol that a man from such humble origin has attained together extraordinary success," Castro said. In a nationalistic and ostensible jab at the US and other western nations, the added: "Of course, just the change — and the change alone — has made it possible for a youth such as Tamayo to have that possibility."

Since NASA formed in 1958, the agency has selected 350 astronauts who space eligible to fly to space. Eighteen of them are Black astronauts, of whom 14 have reached orbit. Us Navy commander Victor J. Glover, selected by NASA in 2013, is slated to come to be the 15th once he flies to space aboard SpaceX"s new Crew Dragon spaceship approximately August 2020.

US Air pressure Colonel Guion S. Bluford, Jr., selected by NASA in 1978, was the first Black American to with space. Bluford launched aboard the eighth space shuttle mission on respectable 30, 1983, climate went on come fly 3 other space shuttle missions in 1985, 1991, and 1992.

NASA could have selected the an initial Black astronaut in 1963 yet didn"t


Captain Edward J. Dwight, Jr., the very first African American selected together a potential astronaut, looks over a version of the Titan III-X-20 Dyna-Soar mix during a visit come Air force headquarters in the resources during November 1963. Bettmann Archive/Getty photos

Early in the hatchet of President john F. Kennedy, together the White residence pushed come land world on the moon prior to 1970, the administration asked the Pentagon to find a Black person in that is ranks that could come to be a NASA astronaut.

On December 8, 1961, the Pentagon sent a memo come President john F. Kennedy"s Civil civil liberties Subcabinet Group. The third section, titled "Negro Astronaut," emphasize the an obstacle of locating together a person.

"An effort is gift made to find a qualified black test pilot to join the astronauts. Personnel data is being obtained and reviewed, yet no determination regarding the accessibility of a standard individual as yet has actually been made," the DoD said in the document.

The filters because that candidates right into the Aerospace research Pilot school (ARPS) — established in 1961 come churn the end future generations that astronauts because that NASA — were intense, together spaceflight chronicler John Logsdon wrote in a 2013 post for Quest: The background of Spaceflight Quarterly. The necessities contained "being under 35 years of age, having actually at least 1,500 hours of experience flying jet airplanes, own at least a bachelor"s level in science or engineering, and also having three consecutive "outstanding" ratings native his military superiors."

Not assisting the DoD in finding a "qualified" candidate was thousands of years of be oppressive of black color people, and specifically a absence of access to high-quality education and also career methods that would"ve otherwise produced a bounty of candidates. Likewise not helpful: Some armed forces leaders" continuous defiance of a 13-year-old executive, management order to incorporate the equipped services, and also the institutional racism more thick permeating every corners of government and culture at large.

Thus the search yielded just one person: Captain Ed Dwight, Jr., climate a 27-year-old jet pilot. The was invited to, and also joined ARPS in 1962, withstanding "prejudice and also scorn" while the trained on the grounds of Edwards Air pressure Base, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

"I did not dream that i was walking to come to be the first Black astronaut," Dwight stated in the documentary film "Black in Space: break the color Barrier," i beg your pardon the Smithsonian Channel debuted in February. "That never gotten in my mind due to the fact that that to be a big obstacle stand in my way, and also I knew there to be going to it is in a racial component to that obstacle. However I didn"t understand it was going to it is in as innovative and as determined as the was."


Captain Ed Dwight stand in prior of an F-104 jet fighter in ~ Edwards Air pressure Base ~ above April 13, 1963. Bettmann Archive/Getty pictures

Chuck Yeager, that was the an initial to break the sound barrier, commanded ARPS and also was "shocked" that he had actually to integrate the school, Dwight claimed in the documentary. Nevertheless, Dwight i graduated as a check pilot in October 1963, making that eligible for NASA astronaut choice — but the agency did not pick the from the school"s very first graduating class.

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" dubbed all the instructors and also he announced to these people, "If that graduates, Kennedy desires to rotate this an are program into a Black an are program,"" Dwight said in the documentary. (Yeager has over the year denied the he to be biased versus Dwight or various other Black ARPS enrollees.)

After Dwight"s non-selection, the White house apparently put much more pressure top top NASA to choose Dwight, to the point he to be to be selected for the next astronaut class. However just weeks before that event, president Kennedy was assassinated, and Dwight to be again passed end after lyndon B. Johnson suspect the presidency.

"I went appropriate down the tube since Johnson want his own Black guy, and also they made decision Lawrence. Castle promised me a mission if ns didn"t speak to the press," Dwight told writer candid White III for a story in the February 1984 concern of Ebony magazine. (Lawrence to be selected as the very first African-American astronaut in June 1967 but died that December in a jet-training flight.)

After receiving anonymous and also threatening letters pertained to his ongoing training, Dwight to be reassigned. He later quit the Air pressure to become a sculptor, together he chronicled in his 2009 autobiography titled "Soaring top top the wings of a Dream."

Thomas McElmurry, a deputy at ARPS, follow to Logsdon, later said Dwight was "perfectly qualified of being a good astronaut," but added "it wasn"t important sufficient to someone in this nation at this stage of the video game to carry out it, for this reason they just chose not to perform it."

Do you have a story or inside details to share around the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at dmosher+tips